Bergman’s early kitchen-sink drama, as idealism turns sour after a seemingly blissful Summer
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Harriet Andersson (Monika), Lars Ekborg (Harry), John Harrysone (Lelle), Georg Skarstedt (Harry’s father), Dagmar Ebbesen (Harry’s aunt), Åke Fridell (Monika’s father), Naemi Briese (Monika’s mother), Åke Grönberg (Harry’s friend)
Summer with Monika is, in many ways, the story of two shots. The first follows Monika (Harriet Andersson) as she strips down and runs across the rocks to the sea during her summer escape from the dullness of life with Harry (Lars Ekborg). It’s the shot that excited a generation of sweaty-palmed gentlemen watching the bizarre exploitation-cut of the film released in the US. The second made auteurs the world over swoon: returned from that summer and trapped in the cramped apartment, childcare life of her parents, Monika goes for an illicit drink with her lover, accepts a cigarette and then turns to stare straight down the camera at us, the shot held for a long minute as all light fades around her, as if challenging us to object to what she is obviously about to do.
Summer with Monika (largely thanks to the first shot) remains Bergman’s most watched film in America. In Stockholm, the children of two working-class families meet in a café and go on a date. Harry works joyless shifts, bullied by bosses and the other staff, in a glass shop. Monika sleeps in the living space of her tiny apartment, where her parents are frequently drunk and indifferent. The two of them chuck it all in to run away to the countryside in Harry’s father’s boat. At first its idyllic, but they can never quite escape the burdens of modern life. When they return, Monika’s pregnancy, a rushed marriage and a tiny apartment sees any dreams they had of youthful freedom drain away.
Bergman’s film feels like the advance guard of the British Kitchen Sink drama. Our two young heroes are full of dreams for a perfect, bohemian life totally different from their parents that neither of them really have the initiative to deliver on. Harry is, at heart, a timid individual – to timid to even smash a glass when he quits his job, instead pushing it as near as he dares to the edge of a shelf and glancing round in fear when it falls. Monika is full of desire for something but even she seems unsure what this is, other than knowing it’s not this.
Together they head into what they want to think – and desperately tell each other – is a perfect summer of utter freedom going where the water takes them in a boat. And at points it is perfect. They drift, relax in the sun, make love. Monika strips down and runs towards the water. The two have a sharp sexual longing for each other. It’s all wildly different from sitting in Harry’s house and hurriedly buttoning their clothes up when they hear his father arrive home early. They have no responsibilities, no requirements, nothing.
From their first meeting together, there is the feeling that they are trying too hard. Both of them wants to see the other as an escape from their own lives. On an early date they watch a classic Hollywood romance at the cinema, but while Monika stares rapt at the screen, Harry seems less engaged – she dreams of a romantic future, he’s basically happy with one where he has Monika. While she wants to plan no further than the next hour, Harry won’t let his mind move on from his long-term dream of becoming an engineer (and the years of study it will require).
They rush together in an impulsive summer, as if trying to hide the fact from themselves that deep down they are unsuited and incompatible. Monika wants to be a free spirit, Harry might enjoy a holiday but always sees himself as taking a place in the world at large. But for a few moments they can enjoy the freedom. Together they flee from a crowded pier to dance alone on a romantic abandoned one. Monika sunbathes on the small boat while Harry steers it. They vow to be together forever, but this romantic moment feels like what it is: a fantasy.
Bergman won’t let us wallow in this romantic fantasy. The drift along the coastline takes place in a tiny boat, with only two suitcases worth of possessions. A fellow tourist attacks their boat, forcing them to defend it (the aftermath is their last moment of passion – before this they were arguing over Harry’s bad dancing). They have very little money for food: they start running out, leading to arguments, scavenging and eventually Monika stealing a roast from a farmhouse after she is caught rifling through the outhouses. She eats this like a savage, tearing flesh from the joint with her teeth and berating Harry for failing to help her (he was off gathering wild fruit – a clear reminder that he is a dutiful but far from exciting hunter-gatherer).
When they return though, it is not to a freedom Monika imagined but the world of her parents. Oppressive, full of responsibility, lacking in joy, every hour spent responsible for a child. Harry starts his training and is rarely seen outside of a suit. Monika is ill-suited to domesticity and bemoans the fact it’s forced upon her. She’s young and she wants the freedom she thought she had been promised – and having her sleep disturbed by a baby in a one-room apartment ain’t it.
And so, we get that defiant stare down the camera. Harriet Andersson is quite extraordinary in this role. It’s arguably the challenging glare that really fired the sexual pistons of the American distributors who re-cut the film into a 60-minute exploitation film (with added insert boob shots of someone else). It’s the stare of a woman who is determined to get what she wants from life and challenges us to judge her. Andersson makes Monika both passionate and challenging, but also vulnerable. She wants tenderness and love, but not at the cost of being trapped in a world where decisions are forced upon her. She’s young and selfish, but also honest and strangely gentle.
Bergman’s work here explodes the simplicity of romantic narratives. Instead, it fits wonderfully with that Kitchen Sink realism, where hopes are worn down by the realities of life and people cling to moments of freedom hoping they will last forever and translate into eternal realities. As Harry (Lard Egbork is very good as this young man constantly trying his best) and Monika increasingly argue, they become more-and-more identical to her parents. Youth eventually gets crushed by the truth of life and dream-like cruises on small boats become long years of childcare and professional training. Heartfelt, challenging and very sad it’s a key early Bergman work.